The Truth about Mentoring
Editor's note: Since this story was written in 1998, Inc. Online has become inc.com.
What does it take to make the perfect mentoring match?
Josh and Seth Frey of Granny's Goodies, a $500,000 employee-gift-package company in Alexandria, Va., may hold some answers. As part of Inc. Online's own stab at understanding mentorship, we set up a six-month pilot program that paired several young entrepreneurs, including the Frey brothers (who sell various forms of gift and care packages), with more seasoned businesspeople. With help from the Boston-based Young Entrepreneurs Network, we identified 21 eager young guinea pigs. We then handpicked their matches from the droves of been-in-business-awhile entrepreneurs who we've met and heard about.
While a few pairs established healthy relationships, most of the partnerships seemed to fizzle out. So to understand what made a good relationship work, we asked what seemed to be the most successful pairing of the batch. Here, the Frey brothers and their mentors, consultant Charlotte O'Neal and managing consultant Lisa Herhold, both from Corporate Resource Development (CRD), a 35-employee marketing strategy and sales-training consulting firm in Atlanta, share some of their experiences.
The younger entrepreneurs -- or "mentees" -- on how it went
Inc. Online: How was the business doing before you began the mentorship program?
Seth Frey: Before we started with the mentorship program, we were trying to sell everything to everybody under the sun -- we were looking at 28 markets or so. We thought, "Who wouldn't need this gift package?" But we were doing about $250,000 in business, and we still weren't profitable. Our mentors forced us to take a step back, take a look at who we are, what we do, and who we do it for. They had us think in ways we had never thought before, about the big questions, such as how big do you want to be? Then we zeroed in on the markets that are most profitable for us.
Inc. Online: Some mentorship relationships are more successful than others. What ingredients did you have to make it work?
Seth Frey: The trust factor is all-important. Our mentors showed us from the start that they wanted to make a commitment to our business. They came to see us in Alexandria, Va., from Atlanta. We were treated like clients.
Josh Frey: For our part, we opened up the entire business to them. Our commitment to them is huge. We see them as our angels; they're providing us with the know-how to grow the business, and that's worth more than gold at this stage of the business. We also always try to give back. We've become a living, breathing model of how CRD's approach can work, and when we talk to big companies we're always promoting CRD. The value they bring to a company like ours is immeasurable. We'd consider giving them a stake in the company, or we could become a paying client. The sky's the limit with these guys on our team.
Inc. Online: What's the biggest barrier to a healthy mentoring relationship?
Seth Frey: Those mentored need to feel as though the mentors are really going to open up and give their best stuff. CRD was very quick to respond.
Inc. Online: What have you gained from the experience?
Seth Frey: Now our company is profitable, and we're making twice as much as when we started. We are better, smarter businesspeople.
Inc. Online: What has been the biggest disappointment?
Seth Frey: It takes time to explore different growth patterns, and because we're so small it means that we spend crucial time away from the day-to-day operation of our business. So sometimes we have to choose whether to focus more on the mentor relationship or more on the operation of the business.
The seasoned entrepreneurs -- the mentors -- weigh in
Inc. Online: What makes this relationship work?
Charlotte O'Neal: We had open conversations from the start and tried to show them that we really wanted to see their company grow. And these guys made it fun to work on the project. Most of our clients aren't as enthusiastic and responsive. The Freys were really eager to put all of our stuff to work, and they were getting fast results and implementing our decisions, which isn't always the case. That made us want to work harder for them.
Lisa Herhold: Some of it is also luck. They were really in need of sales and marketing skills, and that happens to be our expertise. We helped them to focus on just a few core profitable markets. And as a result, they became much more effective entrepreneurs.
Inc. Online: How much time were you giving them?
Lisa Herhold: Charlotte was giving about three hours a week for six months, and now we are committing to another six months.
Inc. Online: Mentorship has been institutionalized in your company. How has that made a difference?
Charlotte O'Neal: It helped that the top executives here were very supportive of the relationship and that they wanted to see the Freys' company grow. We would give them status reports on the company as if it was a paying client. It would have been different without a top executive who really cared about the progress of the company.
Inc. Online: Is there a chance you'll take an equity stake in this company? Are there other means of economic reward that you're hoping for or expecting?
Lisa Herhold: A typical project costs from $100,000 to $250,000 -- the Freys won't be in the position to pay that for quite some time. Right now we're still just viewing it as a way to give back, and we're not entertaining the idea of taking an equity stake in the company. We think the Freys should have internalized many of the marketing lessons we're offering by the end of a year, and after that we might do some ad hoc work for them that may or may not be a paid service. But we are very much taking a wait-and-see attitude. For now, our intention is to keep it as a mentorship relationship. But we will reevaluate at the end of the year.
Joshua Macht was an associate editor of Inc. when this article was published. He headed up Inc. Online's trial mentoring project.
"The Mentors," the cover story by Edward O. Welles of the June 1998 issue of Inc., profiles a man who decided that as a business owner he needed the kind of counsel a boss often provides. His choice: Sam Walton. And somehow Kent Sutherland talked the legendary entrepreneur into it. Bonus: Included at the end of the story are Web sites and phone numbers for seven mentoring programs, plus words of advice from other famous mentors.